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Equitable sustainability transitions

Professor of Governance of Sustainability Eefje Cuppen researches sustainability transitions and takes social values such as equity and equality into account. How, for example, can we reduce CO2 in a way that is fair?

We face huge challenges in terms of climate change, biodiversity, water and natural resources. Eefje Cuppen and her colleagues from Environmental Science, Anthropology and Archaeology have joined the Liveable Planet programme to build on interdisciplinary research into sustainability. Her chair focuses on investigating major sustainability changes. How do different parties in academia, business and society collaborate? Cuppen tries to do justice to a variety of societal and ecological values here. If these different interests receive time and attention, important transitions really can be made.

Project at the intersection between effectiveness and justice

To give an example: Cuppen is currently working with Delft University of Technology, Leiden University and 11 parties from the energy sector on an energy transition project – a transition that must be both effective and fair. As the costs and benefits are not borne equally – for example, because of badly insulated rented accommodation – energy costs hit some people much harder. ‘One of the partners in our project has developed a model that simulates the energy system in a neighbourhood or city. This can be used to explore ways to heat this environment in a climate-neutral fashion and at the lowest possible cost,’ Cuppen explains. Such models guide the process but do not take equitable solutions into account.

Cuppen and her colleagues are therefore developing a method that does include equity. ‘This is difficult because equity isn’t so easy to express. It’s a concept that there are different opinions about. The development of this method and the collaboration this entails with, for example, the municipality, the grid operator, the housing association and a residents’ association is therefore more important than the results of the model itself. We think together about the elements that should be included and we discuss what is effective and fair.’ They then test whether this method really does cause the organisations involved to make different decisions.


‘This assignment had my name on it. Ever since I was a student I’ve been fascinated by the interaction between technology and innovation, policy and society,’ Cuppen explains. ‘Many of the solutions to organise our systems sustainably have been technically possible for a long time. But often they are not used because of all sorts of conflicting interests.’ What makes this kind of research difficult is that it is hugely interdisciplinary and that the researchers also work with parties outside of academia. Grants aren’t always well suited to this, so it can be difficult to secure funding. Moreover, social research requires a great deal of attention to ethical issues and existing power structures, which often leads to questions from external parties.

More insight into social considerations

Cuppen hopes their research will help them gain more insight into how, where and what trade-offs are (or should be) made in the field of sustainability so these can be taken into account in policy development. ‘I think it’s also important to provide input for the teaching. Students work on projects and we use the insights from research in our courses. Within the MSc in Governance of Sustainability, we train around 100 students per year who will soon start shaping sustainability transitions. If they can take this knowledge with them in the process, society will definitely benefit.’

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Talent alone is not enough. Now, with the world desperate for smart and sustainable answers, it is more important than ever that researchers are able to do their work. Leiden has the talent and knowledge to help come up with structural solutions, but without financial support many studies will not go ahead and questions will remain unanswered. Leiden University Fund therefore asks anyone who cares about our university to help us make a difference. So the talents of today can shape the world of tomorrow!

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